Originally from the UK, David Smith has made New York City his home for the past 20 years. Although he only recently began taking photos of the city, he already has a strong style and portfolio of interesting images. He’s developed a unique way of looking at the city – namely, through its reflections.
In addition to photographing reflections, he likes to compose images with shadows, silhouettes, and symmetry. However, reflections are the subject he keeps coming back to. If you browse his Flickr photostream, you’ll see beautiful reflections over and over again.
All of his pictures are true-to-life with no major edits. In fact, he never does more than basic adjustments and cropping. “I believe in finding the art out in the world,” he says.
West Side Skyline
Interested in learning more about his work, I asked him a few questions about his creative process and journey into photography.
Q: How did you become interested in photography?
For many years I traveled the world both as a backpacker and later as a circus and street performer. During that period I never carried any kind of a camera. It was before the days of digital photography and I didn’t want the complication of dealing with processing film as I traveled. I was also extremely driven, creating my act, designing props and inventing original ways of using those props. It is fair to say I was completely consumed by that passion.
Later in life when I settled into family life and became a stay-at-home dad I purchased a simple point-and-shoot digital camera for taking shots of the children. This camera soon found heavy use in capturing images of insects in order to identify them, which one of my sons had become obsessed with.
We also took it on family holidays, and on a trip to Iceland, I took one shot of the children in a remote area which was selected as a “Daily Dozen” on National Geographic’s former Your Shot site. This was the trigger moment when I purchased a bridge camera and began actively searching for photographic subjects. With my body no longer much use for circus work I was looking for a new artistic outlet.
West Side Story
You have been framed.
What attracted you to reflections / street photography in particular?
I began spending long hours walking the streets of my home, New York City, always in search of something original to capture. I quickly noticed that New York is effectively a giant mirror; clear glass, shiny metal, and water features fill every corner.
I also felt that I wanted to take pictures that had an extra depth to them, a painterly aspect, an abstraction, or a journey into make-believe. I found this transformative, magic key, was available through reflection. The idea that I could capture something that was naturally processed through an editing machine (called reflection) and came out transformed excited my creative mind.
Q: What does your usual workflow look like (from planning, shoot to post-processing)? For example, what time of day do you go shooting? Do you walk around a lot or stay in the same location for a long time? Basically, walk us through your typical shoot.
With regard to the workflow, I use varied approaches, including trying to always carry my camera and making mental notes of interesting places I pass when doing other activities. A planned shoot would involve the following steps.
STEP 1 – Look at the forecast for the week ahead and decide which days have the best weather for the type of shot I am after. For skyscrapers, I might want bright sun but will also be looking for a weather change that brings in some cloud formations. The image titled, “Eye” is a good example of this plan giving me something interesting.
For night shots in Times Square, I like to shoot after some heavy rain or even during it. The image titled, “Supernova” was captured on such a planned evening with an umbrella. Snow too would be likely to throw something interesting into the reflective mix.
For ponds and lakes in Central Park, I am looking for low wind (less ripples) and ice formation/melting. Once I know the weather I plan my week accordingly so that I have a completely free period to chase images when the weather is on my side.
STEP 2 – Have something new to try in mind. If there is a fountain with cool abstract reflections in the area spend some time considering how to add something extra into the frame. I love to combine wildlife into my shots and people if possible. The image, “Revelation” was a pre-conceived idea that added a new element to a reflection.
Composition can also be played around with and perhaps have the idea to explore areas of transition such as where water becomes ice, where a fountain has a drop off to another level or investigate reflections at corners of skyscrapers. Get creative and fill your mind with fun ideas to try.
STEP 3 – Visit the target area with an open mind. If I am walking I may not reach the destination if something catches my eye. Once at the destination and chasing images I spend a lot of time following the sun and trying to anticipate when the light will fall between buildings onto something great.
I make mental notes of how this area might be different at other times of day or year and determine whether it is worth a return. NYC lighting is so complex because of the tall buildings that there is a wonderful variation from second to second and season to season. Even as one block falls dark in the shade as the sun sets it is likely to be struck by a reflected highlight from a skyscraper across the street.
I get very absorbed when shooting in an interesting place but have learned to take a moment to sit and observe all around. Often this is when a new approach dawns on me that adds an extra element to a shot.
STEP 4 – For post-processing, I use a simple editing suite that came on my Microsoft computer. It makes basic adjustments to color and exposure. This can be useful to bring out colors and contrast. The best abstract reflections look rich without harsh sharpness, and I try to keep that in mind.
My passion is to get the creative element through the reflection and not through post-processing. I do crop to get the image I wanted and this is necessary because often that image is in a tiny corner of a skyscraper window thirty stories up.
STEP 5 – After seeing my images it is a constructive habit I follow to determine what worked and why. Also to try to think of ways even the best shot could be made better. What if that pond water reflection was broken by a fish touching the surface (possible in a pond), for example?
Q: Do you have any favorite locations in NYC for shooting?
My favorite locations to shoot in NYC are the water bodies of Central Park, two reflective awnings I have found on skyscrapers and the Unisphere at Columbus Circle.
The awnings are the most interesting because they transform the character of people passing under them, (through distortion) into cartoons.
The Unisphere is a shiny metallic globe with an undulating surface that captures the turmoil of city life in an ever-changing abstraction of color and form. The image, “phantoms” was taken at this location.
Inside spaces in NYC have amazing opportunities for reflective shots in marble stone and this is another great location choice. Research common/public indoor spaces in the city.
Ink Drop Girl
Q: Which of your photos of reflections in NYC are you the most happy about, and why?
I have always enjoyed the image titled, “Wind Storm”. It was taken on a clear sunny day and yet the striations in the ice give the impression of a blizzard-like storm blowing through the city. It typifies the magical transformations I love so much.
Another personal favorite is the image titled, “Brave New World”. In this case, the contrast between the image and a boring office space was provided by reflection in a marble floor. The patterns in the stone appearing to exist both within the space and beyond the window, creating a dystopian feel.
Brave New World.
End of the World
Q: Do you have any advice for (street) photographers who want to start photographing reflections in a city? What are some mistakes that a beginner should avoid?
Through trial and error, I have arrived at a few key essentials for taking reflection shots. The most important piece of equipment is a polarizer that fits over the camera lens. By rotation, it brings out or takes away reflection. Photographers also use this to get deep blues in skies, see-through water, etc. Do not leave home without one. Usually, this will be used to maximize reflection but also to get some control such as for some of my dystopian shots where I want some reflection but not complete.
Cameras with digital screens that open out and rotate are very useful for shooting up onto awnings and a high optical zoom is a must for reaching abstract images at the top of skyscrapers. I have 60x and that works well.
In an ideal reflection, the surface is dark/shaded while the subject being reflected is in the light. There are variations to this but it is a solid general concept to begin with.
Most reflection shots with people will be rotated afterward to place them the correct way up. Think carefully about how this will look and pay attention to where the feet will lie.
To see more of David’s photography, visit his Flickr photostream.